Little helicopters

Yesterday there was a guy flying his remote-controlled helicopter in the park. It whizzed around making a whirring sound high above the trees. It reminded me of the drone cameras which were popular with the rallyers at this years launch of the Mongol Rally in Battersea Park, where it seemed everyone had one and were avidly flying them over the start line – a birds eye view of the 220 cars lined up ready for a mad adventure. I can’t wait to see aerial footage of the Mongolian steppes and the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. Back in Warwick Gardens the helicopter wasn’t the only thing flying around – dragonflies were showing off their spectacular aerodynamics by swooping and chasing one another around the park.

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker

It is a good year for dragonflies as southern hawkers, migrant hawkers, a black-tailed skimmer and a broad-bodied chaser have all decided to pay a visit. I like dragonflies as they are such a prehistoric insect that has evolved into a lean, mean flying machine which can fly six ways: forwards, backwards, up and down, side to side, and hover, with an average flying speed of 22-34 mph. That is some achievement and showed up the rather weak limitations of the remote controlled helicopter which could only go up and down and forwards and backwards and somewhat slower!

Black-tailed skimmer

Black-tailed skimmer

Dragonflies start their lives as nymphs in water and are ferocious predators devouring other invertebrates, tadpoles and small fish fry. They can be at the larval stage for five years but most are ready to emerge as adults after three years. When ready they crawl up a plant or reed stalk and emerge from their larval skin. The adults feed on midges and flies.

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

The word dragonfly has its source in the myth that dragonflies were once dragons. To the Japanese, dragonflies symbolise summer and autumn and are respected so much that the Samurai use it as a symbol of power, agility and victory. In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. For Native Americans, they are sign of happiness, speed and purity. A somewhat different attitude in Europe has the dragonfly classed as a witches animal sent by Satan to cause chaos and confusion with names like Ear Cutter, Devil’s Needle, Adderbolt and Horse Stinger. In Sweden, folklore suggests that dragonflies sneak up to children who tell lies and adults who curse and scold, and stitch up their eyes, mouth, and ears. The Welsh call the dragonfly the snake’s servant and think they follow snakes and stitch up their wounds, and in Portugal be aware as they think of them as eye pokers and eye snatchers. In Peckham we prefer just to call them dragonflies or as the little boy, who was standing next to me watching them in awe, called them – little helicopters.

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Fly of the day: Bee-fly

Large bee-fly Bombylius major

Dark-edged bee-fly Bombylius major

Spring is finally here. Flowers are blooming and the recent warm weather has brought out the hairy-footed flower bees, the queen bumblebees, an assortment of solitary bees and the bee-fly. The bee-fly Bombylius major is a comical looking insect – a fluffy body, long proboscis and long spindly legs – and can be seen daintily hovering around Warwick Gardens. A bumblebee mimic, they are the one insect that is most enquired about on the East Dulwich Forum… ‘What is it… is it a bee?’ What is that weird looking insect?’. Its a bee-fly.

They have a preference for low growing flowers. In Warwick Gardens they feed on green alkanet, whereas in Peckham Rye Park you will find them enjoying the grape hyacinth in the ornamental garden. Although they are cute-looking their larvae tell another story. They parasitise larvae of solitary wasps and bees. Female bee-flies predate mining bees by dropping their eggs from the air in Dambuster style, or by flicking their eggs into the tunnels of bee nests. Once in the tunnel, the egg hatches and the larvae find their way into the nests to feed on the grubs. Bee-flies are out and about until June, unless they come to an unfortunate end at the jaws of a crab spider!

Death by crab spider

Death by crab spider

 

 

Busy bees

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Nothing heralds the coming of spring more than the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in Warwick Gardens. They are my favourite solitary bee and I am sure the tag ‘busy bee’ was coined to describe these delightful insects. Whilst the queen bumblebees are lumbering around, and the honey bees are slowly waking up in their hives, Anthophora plumipes are out and about grasping life in their own inimitable way. Often confused with the Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum, they are distinguishable by their hairy legs, cream face and distinctive hovering movement when approaching flowers, often with their long tongue outstretched. The boys fly out first, all gingery-brown and new, full of verve and big personality. They are very inquisitive – checking every flower with a joyful confidence, stopping to hover and have a look at other insects, even having a nosy at the photographer sitting in the bushes! They are zippy bees, darting from flower to flower and chasing after each other along the borders of the park. The females appear a couple of weeks later and are all black except for bright orange hind legs. Easily mistaken for the female Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidarius, they are usually seen gathering pollen at a more leisurely pace and being pursued by male bees. They nest in the ground or the soft mortar of walls and every year I look for a nest to no avail! Although their favourite flower is lungwort ours have a preference for the comfrey patch in the park. The hairy-footed flower bee could well be one of our main urban spring bees as they are frequently found in gardens, parks and allotments.

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Every bee has a cuckoo who goes into the hosts’ nest and lays it eggs. The hairy-footed flower bee is no exception – it has the cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons invading its nest. This is a rather awkward-looking bee with a stumpy face and a pointed abdomen and a flying pattern which is fast and almost zigzag. They are mainly brown and black but black forms are also found, probably mimicking the female Anthophora plumipes. They appear slightly later in the spring once the hairy-footed flower bees have laid their eggs.

Hedge funds and losses

I have always thought that funds should be made available for creating more hedges. In Britain we have lost many of our native hedgerows – mainly due to modern methods of monoculture farming and under-management – contributing to sharp declines in bird and mammal populations. Native hedgerows are important habitats supporting lots of wildlife, and act as barriers against soil erosion and flooding. In our parks planting tends to be prettified with non-native species, and our gardens are partitioned to the inch with wooden fences, chicken wire or brick walls. True, you can recreate a hedge by trailing plants up these vertical man-made dividers but they are poor substitutes for the real thing – living, breathing, chunky, organic hedgerows complete with tangles, twigs and hidey-holes for nesting birds and mammals to take shelter in.

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle and spear-thistle lacebug

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle bug and spear thistle lacebug

In Warwick Gardens funding is being spent on planting a native ‘edible’ hedgerow along the railway side of the park. This excites me as that area has always been a bit sparse when it comes to variable vegetation, and being north facing and surrounded by trees also rather dark, so this will introduce new species into the mix. The Conservation Volunteers have already prepared the ground and waiting to plant; plum and wild pear, hawthorn, wild rose, honeysuckle and gooseberry are among the proposed newbies arriving. But there are some losses: the huge bed of nettles supporting nettle bugs and spiders; a large buddleja bush which suffered poisoning when Railtrack poured chemicals on the Japanese knotweed, but had struggled on to live up to the heights of its common name the butterfly bush, has been clipped right back; an overgrown bramble, which had also been poisoned but fought back to yield very large blackberries, and was a perfect hiding place for sawflies. I will miss the patch of black horehound which has kept a family of wool-carder bees happy for the past couple of years, and dashed my hopes of finding Pied shield bugs. And I will miss the thistles. These kept me glued to the flowers in August when I could guarantee to see my favourite digger wasp Cerceris rybyensis feasting on nectar along with small blues, ruby-tailed wasps, Braconid wasps, bumble and honey bees, and tiny spear thistle lacebugs nestling amongst the spiky leaves. One year a red-tipped clearwing moth visited, causing commotion in the London moth world as they are seldom seen in urban areas. Thankfully the large hawthorn has been left untouched, with added bushes to follow, as last year I found box bugs – a first for Warwick Gardens – and I am hoping to see them again this year.

Even though we will have to wait a while before our hedgerow establishes itself I look forward to seeing what invertebrates decide to move in. Will I add to my species count? Warwick Gardens already has a remarkable reputation for attracting ‘interesting’ insects and I am sure we will be welcoming more. In the meantime I am going to try and relocate the thistles to the other side of the park.

Mosquitoes in Peckham

Its nearly Christmas and for those of you still desperate to find a present for that long-lost cousin who is threatening to turn up at your house on Wednesday morning you could do worse than purchasing a Mosquito t-shirt.

Mosquito and Lou's screen print

Mosquito and Lou’s screen print

These lovely t-shirts are hand screen-printed by Peckham-based designer Lou Smith at Captured on the Rye, from a photo taken at the Peckham Moth Night in Warwick Gardens in August. This is the perfect present for people who annoy you! And presents for the people you love? Check out his bumblebee, wasp, ant and crow designs… they are sublime.

A winning bee

My Buglife calendar arrived today. I was super keen to look at it as it contained all the winners of the Buglife Photography Competition. One of my bees was a winner – the photo I took of an Halictus sp bee sitting on a blade of grass in Warwick Gardens won a ‘Highly Commended’. It represents the month of May and shares the space with a lovely Wasp-spider taken by Elizabeth Kay.

The month of May

The month of May

The competition was held on Flickr and Buglife asked people to join their group and post their photos. This is amateur photographer territory – and to me the essence of passionate wildlife photography. What I liked about this competition was the free-for-all feel to it – and was open to everyone who had taken a picture of an insect in the UK. Invertebrates rarely win photo competitions – I think judges overlook the skill it takes to hone in on a tiny winged insect with compound eyes and take a photo before it flies off. Most wildlife photography awards nod to birds and mammals and the capture of the ‘perfect moment’ of a whale jumping out of the sea or a lion about to jump a gnu, and usually demand a payment to enter. Many of us don’t have the equipment to take such stunningly perfect photos or the time and money to visit the exotic locations to see the wildlife that usually win these competitions, let alone the entrance fee to enter. Some of us just have cheap cameras and limited habitats. Having had a look through the 1300 images that had been submitted I was stunned at the quality of photos. All the more reason to celebrate my win! As a graphic designer working in the world of urban conservation I spend a lot of time on Flickr looking for wildlife images to include in my designs, and I find some of the best photos are taken by people who don’t class themselves as ‘photographers’. They have a passion for their subject – be it badgers, birds or bumblebees. The Buglife calendar reflects this passion and has sawfly larvae, ant-lion, snails and slugs and cockchafers, and Chris Dresh’s stunning winning photo of a Raft-spider catching a Golden-ringed dragonfly. Marvellous. Congratulations to all the winners, and to Buglife for hosting a great competition.

The Buglife calendar is for sale from their website. A perfect christmas present. You can order one here: Buglife Calendar

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Master of disguise

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with mite infestation

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with red mite infestation

Every so often some rather interesting species appear in Warwick Gardens. I have already talked about the Mosaic leafhopper and the Mottled shield bug, but nothing quite prepared me for finding a Scarce fungus weevil. I like thumbing through guide books to insects – I have a wish list of species I’d like to see: Green tiger beetleMole cricketPuss moth caterpillar and the Scarce fungus weevil which looks remarkably like a broken twig or a bird dropping. Last summer I was sitting on one of the logs munching a packet of crisps when something caught my eye. It looked like twig… and it moved. Closer inspection revealed two eyes, six legs and a short snout covered in fine hairs. It was the most unusual weevil I had ever seen, and as for looking like something else to ward off predators, a true master of disguise.

Scarce fungus weevil

Scarce fungus weevil (front view)

True weevils are small beetles that have a reputation as pests. Fungus weevils belong to a small group of weevils from the Anthribidae family – their antennae are not ‘elbowed’ as in true weevils and are usually larger. The larvae of the Scarce fungus weevil, or Cramp-ball fungus weevil as they are also known, develop inside the dark balls of the Cramp-ball fungus, or King Alfred’s Cakes, which grows on the dead wood from ash trees. This fungus is easily identified as it resembles burnt cakes. The adult weevil feeds on the wood around the fungus. When disturbed they tend to fold their legs in and fall to the floor, where they look just like a bird dropping. It is listed on the National Biodiversity Network’s Gateway as being ‘Nationally Scarce’ and comes under the category ‘Notable B’ which means it is uncommon in the UK. In fact there are hardly any records of it in London so all the more reason to celebrate its presence in Peckham! How it got here is a mystery – I would have expected to find it in woodland, somewhere like Sydenham Hill Wood or Nunhead Cemetery, but no records exist there either. As for possible reasons to be in Warwick Gardens – there are two ash trees in the park and one in a garden that backs onto the park. And the log seating is dead ash where there is plenty of fungus growing. I will be looking out for Cramp-balls.

The current concerns about ash dieback disease are worrying when it comes to the survival of Scarce fungus weevil. As they rely on dead ash, if the dieback continues there will eventually be no new trees and subsequently no dead wood to feed on. Symptoms of ash dieback must be reported to the Forestry Commission. You can do this here: Tree Alert